Last week, we celebrated a birthday. The child is just one year old, a mere infant. But she is growing up fast.
“She” is the 51% Coalition – a coalition of “Women in Partnership for Development and Empowerment Through Equity.” The Coalition is very much an action-oriented group, committed to these goals. It has a businesslike approach to its mission of bringing women to the table – to make a strong contribution to Jamaica’s development. To quote its press release: “Over the past year the 51% Coalition has been working to redress the gender imbalance in decision-making. Its thrust is to achieve a ‘balance’ of not more than 60% and not less than 40% of either sex on public boards and bodies.”
At a celebratory breakfast in Kingston last Wednesday, Chairperson of the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) Linnette Vassell spoke of “many gaps.” These are the empty spaces we need to fill, to ensure that Jamaican women enjoy their full representative rights as productive members of society. WROC was a co-sponsor of the birthday party, along with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) office in Jamaica.
Over the past half-century since Independence, Jamaica has not done as well as it could have, for its women. Some may disagree with this statement, but this is my view. Perhaps one could say that Jamaican women have not done enough for themselves. In the year of “Jamaica 50,” for example, women are still barely visible on the political scene, despite the fact that we currently have a woman Prime Minister. Only 12.7 per cent of Jamaican parliamentarians, and seventeen per cent of local government councilors are women.
At the breakfast, Ms. Vassell presented a report card on the 51% Coalition’s activities and achievements over the past year. Of course, this is all work that the Coalition has to continuously build on to achieve longer-term goals. We are not talking instant results, here. However, in the amazing way that women have, the Coalition has already established meaningful partnerships: a support network that will stand it in good stead over the coming years. The influential Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica is seeking to bridge one of the “gaps” by encouraging more women to join private boards. It has provided “train the trainers” instruction in corporate governance. And after twenty years of setting up its Hall of Fame, it has eventually inducted a woman – Ms. Lorna Myers. In a very promising partnership with the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE, headed by Marlene Street-Forrest) the Coalition has addressed company CEOs and circulated a list of 54 women that it recommends for board membership. Collaboration with the JSE is ongoing.
And what of the Government? Well, there are interesting linkages here. The Bureau of Women’s Affairs, led by the dedicated Ms. Faith Webster, is a government agency which falls under the Women’s Affairs portfolio. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has, by the way, held this portfolio for most of the past twenty years or so; during this time, the picture for Jamaican women in public life has been mixed, as noted above. The public-private sector Partnership for Transformation is a key vehicle to enable the 51% Coalition to integrate equity issues into the national dialogue. The previous political administration had committed to an independent seat for a woman in its manifesto, and this will become a reality, which the Coalition welcomes.
The National Policy for Gender Equality is of key importance. The Coalition looks forward to monitoring the debate on this topic and to ensuring that the policy provides a workable and blueprint for the future.
And the politicians? They are the important gatekeepers, standing by the gate that opens to women’s full citizenship; full citizenship meaning full participation and equal representation. The 51% Coalition felt it should and must engage both political parties, as they each tackle new challenges in the wake of the December 2011 general elections. Members have already met with the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which is re-thinking and evaluating its internal structure and strategies, in order to make sure that women’s empowerment and gender issues are firmly on the table. We shall see what comes out of that. (Incidentally, the JLP fielded a record number of female candidates in the 2011 parliamentary elections – thirteen, most of them new to representational politics – but only three seasoned women contenders were successful. Five out of the People’s National Party‘s six candidates won or retained their seats).
The Coalition has also set up a political and constitutional reform working group, with two specific aims in mind. Firstly, the group seeks to ensure that gender issues are addressed in the reform of electoral laws; a meeting with the Electoral Office of Jamaica was scheduled for this week. Recommendations on gender issues have also been made to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, for inclusion in its 2013-15 agenda.
Let us return, for a moment, to the Prime Minister who is also responsible for Women’s Affairs, Portia Simpson Miller. The 51% Coalition is still waiting for a meeting to discuss with her its key objectives and plans for the way ahead; this should take place soon. Specifically, the Coalition would like to press upon the Prime Minister the importance of adopting and implementing the Corporate Governance Framework for Public Bodies in Jamaica, which her predecessors had adopted.
For example let us take a look at the Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Chaired by government Senator K.D. Knight, the UDC is a major government agency which falls under the Prime Minister’s portfolio. An Auditor General’s report pointed to its huge indebtedness and its major operating losses of close to J$500 million. The Coalition’s Ms. Vassell called this state of affairs “truly alarming,” pointing to the need for a Public Accountability Act and other legal measures to deal poor corporate governance in the public sector. (By the way, there are five women on the UDC’s 22-member board). In this respect, the Coalition has made specific proposals for specific competent women to be included on the board of this and other government agencies (the National Water Commission‘s nine-member board, for example, includes just one woman; this agency has come under fire just this week for its billions of dollars of losses; and only 32 per cent of the water it supplies is actually paid for).
Up to April 2012, at least seventy per cent of public sector boards were chaired by men; and more than half had less than 20 per cent women board members. A few years ago, the picture was very much the same – very little progress. Don’t you think that if more women were appointed to their boards they would have a new dimension to offer to these struggling government agencies? In seeking to address this, the 51% Coalition has conducted a series of public consultations in Kingston, Mandeville and Ocho Rios with women appointed to public boards; these were attended by 186 women and a few men, and the response was highly positive. Some women are ready to go out and advocate.
Other issues that the 51% Coalition looks forward to discussing with the Prime Minister include possible collaboration with her Office on the agenda of priorities established by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); as well as the approach to gender-based violence, a critical issue for Jamaica.
What is in the future for the Coalition then? There are many plans ahead, including forging on with the issues above. A media and publicity campaign to stimulate discussion around these issues will be stepped up (listen out for some thought-provoking PSAs early in 2013!) The Coalition will build on partnerships already established with women’s groups and tap into the growing interest in the private sector; it will expand and diversify its recommendations for board representation by women; it will continue to facilitate training and support for female board members through mentoring.
Most of all, the Coalition wants to see growing activism and hands-on work among its members. It would like more women (and men) to speak on these issues at service clubs, churches, community meetings and so on. Get the dialogue going. Help is needed with the mobilization of all kinds of resources. Moreover, women need to look inside themselves; they need to support each other, at every opportunity. “We need to overcome the barriers within ourselves,” as Ms. Vassell noted.
So, there is much work ahead. The Coalition has more growing up to do, and much to get its teeth into. Its voice is growing louder, and will continue to grow in the next year of its existence. Its objectives are clear; its vision is sharply focused. It intends to make things happen.
Happy birthday again! And here is a quote from a pioneer of women’s rights, Eleanor Roosevelt:
We women are callow fledglings as compared with the wise old birds who manipulate the political machinery, and we still hesitate to believe that a woman can fill certain positions in public life as competently and adequately as a man.
But the times are a-changing… And in the words of President Barack Obama, the 51% Coalition’s vibrant membership is “fired up, ready to go!” And no reason to hesitate.
For further information, please contact the 51 % Coalition Secretariat:
Ms. Anna-Kaye Rowe
Tel: 929-8873, 960-9067
Related links and websites:
http://www.caribjournal.com/2012/11/27/forbes-jamaicas-womens-coalition-marks-first-anniversary/ (Jamaica’s Women’s Coalition Marks First Anniversary: Carib Journal)
http://www.marciaforbes.com/content/women-performed-well-jamaica’s-2011-elections (Women performed well in Jamaica’s 2011 elections: MarciaForbes.com)
https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/madam-director-madam-chair/ (Madam Director, Madam Chair: petchary.wordpress.com)
https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/we-are-the-51-per-cent/ (We Are the 51 Per Cent: petchary.wordpress.com)
http://www.eclac.org/mujer/noticias/paginas/6/38906/Jamaica.pdf (Report from Jamaica to the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean/ECLAC)
http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/ (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women)
http://wrocjamaica.org/womens-leadership/51-coalition-additional-resources/npge-ja/view (National Policy on Gender Equality: pdf document on WROC website)
http://www.wrocjamaica.org (Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre website)
http://www.fesdc.org (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Washington website)
http://www.psoj.org (Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica website)
http://www.bwa-jamaica.gov.jm (Bureau of Women’s Affairs website)
http://www.jamstockex.com/index.php (Jamaica Stock Exchange website)
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=36675 (K.D. Knight new UDC Chairman: Jamaica Gleaner)
http://www.udcja.com (Urban Development Corporation website)
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20121011/lead/lead7.html (Under-utilized facilities put huge hole in UDC finances: Jamaica Gleaner)
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120729/lead/lead2.html ($400 million shame in the city: Jamaica Gleaner)
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/editorial/No-to-a-tariff-increase-for-the-NWC_13116803 (No to a tariff increase for the NWC: Jamaica Observer editorial)